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In Which We Learn To Appreciate Our Education

in Caps Not Crosby/Columns/Opinions by

At Swarthmore, we sometimes take our elite, intellectual college experience for granted, yet there are people who would do anything for a chance to take even a single class of higher education. Here’s a story about a woman I met this summer who moved mountains to get back to school, which may make you think twice the next time you complain about Sharples or the state of bathrooms in Willets.


On a Tuesday afternoon in June, 55-year-old Sheila White found herself the 115th person in a line of prospective college students waiting to register for University of the District of Columbia’s fall term. White remembers the waiting time fondly, unbothered by the line’s length. She would have been willing to wait all day if necessary, the task’s tedium incapable of diluting her excitement at taking a monumental step towards a dream that had been put off for too long.


White, a D.C. native, has always possessed a knack for learning and an inclination to tackle any academic challenge. Although she was forced to drop out of school in ninth grade to raise her first child, she continuously stressed to her children the importance of an education, ensured that all of them completed high school on time, and worked as a teaching aid and substitute teacher at Fletcher-Johnson Middle School for over 10 years.


Still, White knew from the moment she left school that she would find a way to return.


“I was always going to go back,” she declared. “It was instilled in me. I made it so important to my kids I preached it so much so there was never a question. As long as I had breath in my body, I was going back!”


At the age of 49, White enrolled in the External Diploma Program at Ballou STAY High School. Ecstatic to be back at school, she threw herself into her work, and after completing her requirements in just three months, on a hot D.C. summer night, she stood in a gold cap and gown and proudly collected her high school diploma.


White never intended to stop there, and her love for learning prompted her to pursue plans for further education at the collegiate level. However, these plans were derailed three years ago when a series of devastating events including being robbed, a flood in her apartment, and an illness landed her on the streets.


“I would stay up all night and watch the sun come up,” White remembered. “Then I would go to a museum and sit. First I was angry about my situation. Then something told me I needed to fight back and do what I needed to do for me. I had that time to think what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and so I decided to go to the shelter.”


At the shelter, White was initially intrigued when she found out they had a daily art class. Seeing the class as an opportunity to learn, she decided to attend; however, she was disappointed to find it was nothing more than coloring books.


“It’s not for me,” White recalled thinking. “I’m better than this. It’s not the class I need.”


After two years at the shelter and prospects of her continued education slipping away, White stumbled upon the 13th and G Street location of Street Sense. Street Sense is a media center that produces a newspaper about issues surrounding D.C.’s homeless population that is sold by homeless vendors. Street Sense also provides social work aid as well as workshops in various forms of media including poetry, film, and journalism to the vendors. Finding Street Sense was a happy accident that has allowed Ms. White to return to the classroom, expand her intellectual horizons, and discover a passion for filming.


Through Street Sense, White has also become involved with DCTV, DC’s only television station devoted exclusively to local programming with a focus on empowering citizens to tell their own stories. It was there where White found her love for the camera. When Street Sense offered to pay for a 16-week class at the station, she jumped at the opportunity and graduated from the program with certifications in videography, editing, and production.


“I loved learning how to edit the film, interview people, and do the lighting,” she exclaimed. “I’m always telling my story, which I don’t mind telling, but my best thing is being behind the camera. I like to zoom in on people and let them tell their stories. That led me to go sign up at UDC because then I knew I wanted to go to college for media. With my first year, I’ll have to take basic English and stuff like that, but once I’m done with the basic classes, I want to transfer to American University or Trinity to study liberal arts and communications.”


With regards to her post-grad plans, White intends to come full-circle.


“Once I get my degree, I think I would like to do my internship here at Street Sense. I love the work they do, and I want to go behind the camera and video them,” White declared.


As she spoke to me about her then-impending college experience, her smile was radiant and her eyes were sparkling with anticipation as she glanced every few minutes at her phone, waiting for a text from her registration advisor about her fall schedule.


“I’m a freshman,” she repeatedly exclaimed, incapable of uttering those words without a grin spreading instantly across her face. “I’m a freshman. Once I got my high school diploma, I thought, this ain’t enough. Once I got that degree, I knew I wanted another one.”


Currently beginning her second semester at UDC, White reports that Firebird life is absolutely the one for her, gushing about her classes, her successes, and the school spirit at basketball games. It sounds like she is well on her way to achieving her next cap and gown.


Higher education is a privilege afforded to us at Swarthmore, which, for many of us, was and is our dream school, by a number of different factors: our families, our high schools, and various forms of financial aid. The benefits are innumerable, including brilliant professors, state-of-the-art labs, a beautiful campus, and access to avenues that will open doors for all of us in the future. Sometimes, we find ourselves looking down on other schools from our elite, intellectual perch without realizing how some people had to fight tooth and nail to make even community college a reality. For many, attending a place like UDC is a seemingly unattainable dream and its achievement should be categorized as nothing short of outstanding.

DC Resident Ken Martin’s Journey to Housing

in Columns/Opinions by

Housing is something we at Swat take for granted every day. Most of us wake up in dorms where bathrooms that have been cleaned for us are right down the hall.  Most of us don’t wake up each morning grateful for our bed, our window, our floor because we are used to having those things in our lives.

For Ken Martin, a vendor for Street Sense, D.C.’s prominent street newspaper sold on the city’s downtown corners, this is not the case.

After spending 17 years without a stable living situation, Ken moved into his apartment just one week prior to July 4th this past summer. He is incapable of suppressing a grin as he describes that memorable night. Standing in front of a bedroom window belonging solely to him, Ken listens with pride to the deafening cracks of fireworks erupting over the Washington Monument’s distant form and the soft tones of Joe Sample’s “There Are Many Stops Along the Way” playing fittingly in the background. As he watches, Ken cannot help but look back on the last 17 years, the last 17 Independence Days spent without a window to look out of or a roof over his head.  

A diligent worker who, early in his career, helped others as a crisis intervention counselor, Ken never fathomed that homelessness could happen to him. However, in 2000, a series of bad business ventures left Ken unable to afford his home. After a few years of living on the couches of friends, he landed on the streets.
Ken remembers rotating between parks, hospital courtyards, and an all-night Starbucks; he constantly worried about where he was going to spend the night.

“You waited for shelter hotline trucks to come bring you blankets in the night, waited for the Salvation Army to bring you plastic bags you make sleeping bags out of,” he recalls.

During this time, he also suffered from a series of heart problems, resulting in three surgeries in the past year and a total of seven during the last 14 years.

“In each case, they had no place to put me after the surgery, so I was actually in the street after having surgery on my heart,” he says.

Ken was told his medical conditions qualified him for immediate placement into housing. He went through three versions of the VI-SPDAT, a form caseworkers fill out for their clients to submit to various housing providers, and applied for Section 8 public housing in January of 2003.

After 14 years of diligently updating his paperwork with no tangible progress, Ken finally got a call from a caseworker at the D.C. Office on Aging.

“I was a client of one of her colleagues at the time. She called me up and she said, ‘Mr. Martin, there’s some [housing] vouchers that are coming into this office. You qualify, and we’re not gonna let you die out there.’”

Seven weeks later, Ken obtained a voucher, and on June 20, 2017, he opened the door to his own apartment — just in time for a spectacular fireworks show.

Celebrating America’s birthday well into his 37th year of sobriety in a new apartment in Adams Morgan, Ken has a lot to be proud of.

“After a couple minutes of just looking up there and just getting into the moment, it occurred to me, this was my celebration! I was celebrating my independence too. ‘Cause, this is my independent living situation now. I’m free of all the encumbrances of other people’s ideas, other people’s ideologies, other people’s barriers. … This was my independence. And what better way to celebrate it than with fireworks.”

There are a lot of things I know do not cross my mind while I’m here at Swat. As much knowledge and information as I am trying to pummel into my head on a daily basis, there is so much that we all take for granted.  Sometimes, you need to break the Swat bubble and understand what is going on outside in order to truly appreciate the fact that we are here.

Trends in Homelessness

in Columns/Multimedia/Opinions by

Housing is something we at Swat take for granted every day. Most of us wake up in dorms where bathrooms that have been cleaned for us are right down the hall.  Most of us don’t wake up each morning grateful for our bed, our window, our floor because we are used to having those things in our lives. Outside the Swat bubble, as we know but don’t always place at the forefront of our minds, that is not the case.

Sasha Williams thought she’d found a new place to live. A survivor of domestic abuse, severe depression, and years in the streets, she’s been trying to move her and her four-year-old daughter from their current apartment into a safer neighborhood.

The problem? The apartment building has denied her on the grounds of bad credit—despite the fact that the housing voucher she’s held for over two years guarantees she will be able to cover the rent. Frustrated by what she perceives to be discriminatory treatment, Sasha sees it as just one more setback in a long-standing, seemingly interminable fight for housing.

It’s a fight that many Americans—particularly those living in the nation’s capital—are losing. The graphs below illustrate the breadth of the homelessness crisis and what can be done to solve it.

Homelessness is a national crisis.

According to an annual point-in-time count, over 549,000 people were homeless in the U.S. on a single night in January of 2016—more than the populations of 62 countries around the world. Twenty-nine percent of those people were in families with two or more children, and 32 percent were reported to be living outside. Despite the efforts of organizations across the country to raise awareness about this issue, homelessness has barely declined since 2007.
Things are particularly bad in Washington, D.C.

The nation’s homeless crisis is near its starkest in the nation’s capital, where the District is lagging far behind the national average in combatting homelessness.

D.C.’s biggest problem lies with its inability to effectively address the increase of families experiencing homelessness. While the national average for individuals in homeless families decreased by 2.6 percent from 2015-2016, D.C.’s average increased by over 34 percent.

Homelessness knows no race, gender, or age, affecting nearly every group imaginable. There are certain categories of people, however, who bear this burden at a higher rate. African Americans represent a disproportionate number of homeless people (roughly 71%) in the D.C. Metropolitan Area relative to their percentage of the area’s population (roughly 25%).

From pre-K to college, students across the country are also experiencing large degrees of homelessness. There are currently enough homeless American children to fill American University’s enrollment 10 times. The lack of a stable home has a devastating effect on a student’s likelihood of furthering their education: only 3.4 percent of homeless students who enroll in 12th grade attend college the next year.

The rising cost of housing is a root cause of homelessness.

The causes of homelessness are as multifaceted as its constituents, but the most obvious in D.C. is the ever-increasing cost of housing.

D.C.’s minimum wage relative to these rising housing prices exacerbates the problem. A District resident earning minimum wage would have to work 93 hours per week in order to afford a one-bedroom rental at the Fair Market Price.

D.C. has the second-highest housing wage—hourly pay necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment without spending over 30 percent of income on rent—in the country.

Solutions should be based on Housing First.

The D.C. government’s reliance on rapid re-housing—a model that grants people experiencing homelessness temporary, short-term rental assistance and services—has in many cases done more harm than good, often landing families back in shelters. As of October 2016, one out of every eight families in D.C.’s shelter system had already gone through a rapid re-housing program at least once. Further, families in such programs are forced to allocate an average of 40-60 percent of their income towards their rent, leaving them severely rent-burdened and incapable of providing for themselves.

Contrasting the failures of rapid re-housing is the Housing First approach, a method that research has proven to be successful in permanently moving people out of homelessness. Unlike rapid rehousing, Housing First prioritizes providing those experiencing homelessness with permanent housing as quickly as possible, providing other supportive services only after a person is firmly secured in housing—an approach founded on the principle that people will respond better to treatment and or help if they have a secure roof over their heads.

In Utah, Housing First programs helped the state reduce chronic homelessness by 91 percent in 2015. In Denver, Colorado, emergency-service costs alone went down 73 percent for people put in their Housing First; the program has proved to be an extremely cost-effective approach to ending homelessness.

Another jurisdiction that implements this Housing First technique is just across the river from D.C. in Arlington, Virginia. Crediting its participation in the 100 Homes campaign, nationwide Zero: 2016 Campaign, Homeless Services Center, and continued implementation of a Housing First model, Arlington has been able to specifically target the populations in their city experiencing the highest rates of homelessness.

Large-scale data is critical in understanding homelessness and its potential solutions, but it’s also imperative to remember what is actually behind each line and number. Sasha Williams is a statistic present on multiple graphs used in this piece, but she is also a woman trying to move into a safe neighborhood so she can raise a young family. She is funny, engaging, smart, and interested in studying filmmaking. She is a point on a graph, on many of these graphs, but she is, first and foremost, a person.

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